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The Benioff Doctrine

Marc Benioff has a message for his rich tech friends: Give back or get out. A candid conversation with the Salesforce CEO and philanthropic alpha dog.

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff.

The people's mogul: Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff.

You make it all sound very simple, but when you’re a CEO, you’re worried about a lot more than your own happiness, especially in tech, where so many companies go belly-up. Isn’t some of the stinginess just about survival?
As  a CEO, you have a lot of ability to do amazing things: You can be an innovator and a leader, you can create shareholder value, and you can give back. It’s part of what you do. And the employees want to do it. If I weren’t doing this, I’d be holding back the desires of my employees. This is not hard. This is easy, easy, easy to do.

So why haven’t more companies signed up? not to minimize the commitment of the companies that have promised money to SF Gives, but a lot of big, public companies are MIA—Yahoo, Yelp, Twitter, Facebook—plus others like Square and Airbnb and Uber that are still private but are making enormous sums.
Well, Yelp is doing 1/1/1, and they have $50 million in their foundation. Jeremy [Stoppelman, Yelp’s chief executive officer] is awesome and a good friend of mine. He and I have had that conversation, and I’m sure he will eventually get on board, but not yet.

What is the sticking point for the others? What kind of resistance do you hear from them?
Mostly that this is not what companies do. You know, Milton Friedman said that the business of business is business. Your job as a company is not to give back. It’s to make profits.

And what do you say to that?
I say, if you want to be in this city and take advantage of all this great infrastructure—our mass transit, our schools, our hospitals, the safety and stability that we have—then also give back. These are the table stakes for doing business here. This is not a new idea. This place has a generous spirit, an innovative spirit, and it’s a beautiful spirit, a loving spirit—those are the things that mark what S.F. is really all about.

It’s also, as you’ve said, a city of civil disobedience. You’ve said before that you welcome and embrace the type of rhetoric and protests that we’ve been witnessing the last few years. But i can’t help feeling that this effort, SF Gives, is almost a counteroffensive against the protests. Do you see it as that?
I hope so, definitely. I think that it is something that needs to be part of the narrative. But we also need to take care of these other things: Regulate the buses, reform the Ellis Act, make sure we don’t have broad gentrification. And then we need to make sure that the tech industry is giving back and supporting these efforts.

The irony is pretty apparent, though. the gentrification and the evictions don’t happen without the successes of companies like yours. Is SF Gives your way of making amends? 
Well, if you go to the great cities in the world—Tokyo, New York, Paris, London—they have all these same issues. If you want to buy an apartment near the Eiffel Tower, it’s going to be expensive! And you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that. S.F. is always going to be expensive because it’s a great city, and people want to live here: I mean, look at this [gesturing out the window at a sweeping view of the Ferry Building and the Bay Bridge]—this is unbelievable, where we are every day. But because of that, the mayor and the leaders of this city need to work hard to regulate the changes.

Here’s an annoying question: Why only 500 grand per company? That seems like a drop in the bucket for many of the companies we’re talking about.
I thought a million would be too hard to sell; $500,000 was more salable. But several companies have come in with a million.

So the strategy is working.
It’s going well, and I think it will continue to go well. We have 14 companies [as of press time in early April, only 12 had been officially announced]—blue-chip, marquee companies—and if you can get 14, you can get 100, and if you can get 100, you can get 1,000. I don’t know the time frame, but I know that it’s captured a lot of attention. When we went out to do Salesforce’s 15-year anniversary party [a free public concert, starring Janelle Monáe, on March 7 at Justin Herman Plaza], I didn’t think there would be 10 TV cameras shooting it. When we host Dreamforce, one of the world’s biggest technology conferences, it’s a phenomenon, but hardly any journalists come. We didn’t have one TV camera this year—OK, Jim Cramer came, but that was it. But right now, all anyone wants to talk about is SF Gives.

Do you worry about putting all your chips on Daniel Lurie and Tipping Point? His is a pretty small, young organization. 
Well, they’re backed up by all the resources we can provide, and they know that they can fall back on us. Their job is to distribute the money, not to administer it. There are very worthwhile NGOs out there doing phenomenal work, but I think that Daniel is the best and most honest broker.

There are also more established entities like the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, to which Mark Zuckerberg donated a billion dollars last year. Why not channel money to them?
Silicon Valley Community Foundation is a bunch of DAFs: donor-advised funds. You give your money to SVCF and you get your tax write-off for the year, but [the foundation] has no obligation to administer that money.

So you see Zuckerberg’s gift as more of a write-off than a donation?
Where’s it gone? What good is it doing now? I’m sure his intentions are positive, but we need to see that money get distributed. What are his targets? What are his philanthropic interests? We know that he has a political interest with his 501(c)(4) [, a lobbying group pushing for tech-friendly federal policies], but what are his philanthropic interests?

So what are your philanthropic targets when it comes to SF Gives?
I want to see outcomes. That’s what I’m most interested in when I give. When we open that building [the Mission Bay campus of UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital] in January of next year, that’s an outcome. Hope SF has provided jobs for kids and gotten them off the streets of tough neighborhoods— that’s an outcome. Year Up is providing job training for high school kids and putting them in these high-tech companies—that’s an outcome. Star Community Home is bringing homeless women with young kids and babies into high-quality shelters—that’s an outcome. We want to have clear, tangible examples of our money being put to use.

So here’s a philosophical question to conclude with: We know that tech has the power to change S.F., as we’ve seen over the last few years. But is the reverse possible? Can San Francisco values ever change tech?
I think so.

Some of your peers might disagree.
Yeah, but we’re right. We have the truth on our side. This is gonna happen. The door is open, and people are walking through it.


Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco

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